People across the United States marked International Women’s Day on Wednesday as a day of action to recognize the sacrifices made by women and those who have been marginalized by society.
But one group who did not show up at rallies or protests across the country were the female immigrant detainees who are consistently denied dignity and do not enjoy adequate rights.
The United States has the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world, roughly holding a combined 40,000 people men, women, and children every day who are waiting for their immigration court hearings. That number could shoot up exponentially as President Donald Trump seeks to expand the use of detention centers to hold people in violation of immigration laws. Just this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that he was open to the idea of separating mothers from children after they cross the border.
Numerous lawsuits against detention centers have pointed to the abysmal conditions that detainees are subjected to. But female detainees face unique problems that could cause serious damage to their health and could put them in more traumatic situations than the ordeals that they left behind.
“Women enter detention with severe trauma…and detention itself exacerbates that trauma.”
Human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the immigrant advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) have alleged several instances of sexual abuse and physical abuse by detention guards against females, as well as unlawful strip searches.
“We see women enter detention with severe trauma…and detention itself exacerbates that trauma,” Clara Long, researcher of the U.S. program at HRW, told ThinkProgress. “We at HRW have documented enormous problems with women receiving needed medical care in immigration detention.”
A 2015 Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) report found that immigrant detainees are at high risk of re-experiencing past traumas when they are detained, with many reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“There aren’t sufficiently safe spaces, or medical and psycho-social support systems,” Katharina Obser, a Senior Program Officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said.
In some cases, women are also unable to obtain menstruation kits because they feel humiliated. Long recalled meeting with a group of female detainees at an immigration detention center last year who felt ashamed to ask male guards for pads or tampons during their menstrual cycles.
“They felt like getting pads or tampons were a matter of whether you were favored by guard and not typically a right,” Long said. “I don’t think that’s the policy of the facility, but that certainly was the experience they underwent. That’s not a dignified way to be confined.”
The issues that women encounter don’t just begin inside the detention center. According to Tarah Demant, the senior director at Amnesty International USA, many women who cross into the U.S. from the three Central American countries that make up the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — “take birth control expecting to be raped” along the perilous journey.
“It’s worth the risk of almost certain sexual violence for them to reach what they think is a safe place.”
“Their lives are so dangerous that it’s worth the risk of almost certain sexual violence for them to reach what they think is a safe place,” Demant said.
Over the past few years, El Salvador and Honduras have traded the title of “Murder Capital of the World,” prompting many women and children to flee the violence and seek some form of humanitarian relief in the United States. Between October 2016 and January 2017, tens of thousands of people have surrendered at the southern U.S. border, including 54,147 family units with moms and kids and 25,694 unaccompanied kids, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency statistics.
Many of these moms and kids are now living in uncertainty because one of Trump’s executive order has made it more difficult to obtain humanitarian relief like asylum. Once denied, they could be deported back to their home countries where they could undergo the same traumatic events. That’s in part why advocates from over 560 human rights organizations have expressed concern over his latest executive order which also prohibits refugee resettlement for 120 days.
“The increased delays, explicit bans, and the possibility of being sent for processing to a contiguous country create uncertainty and the real danger of harm, jeopardize the ability of victims to access safety, and exacerbate the trauma they have experienced,” the letter, which was released Wednesday, read in part.
The situation will likely only get worse for women — particularly mothers — in detention as the Trump administration continues to deliberate over family separation as an enforcement tactic to deter future border crossers. Women who are separated from their children would have to fight for legal relief separately, facing the possibility that either case could have different legal outcomes. And because separated family members may not have access to the same documentation of their joined cases, some people may be unable to provide evidence showing that they are fleeing from harm.